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‘Children of Men’ sad but hopeful

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OWEN: Turns in great performance.
  • OWEN: Turns in great performance.

With all the things that seem to be converging to try and do us in — global warming, super viruses, Ruskie nukes and bioweapons gone missing, and terrorism, to name a few — even the most faithful among us has to be wondering these days whether God is rooting for the home team.

While this writer would prefer a quick and painless end — an asteroid strike might be preferable, for instance, to freezing to death in a Texaco-sponsored ice age — the new film “Children of Men” questions how mankind might react to being sentenced by the powers that run the universe to the ultimate slow death. As envisioned by visionary director Alfonso Cuaron, the result — as you might expect — isn’t the whole world laying down its weapons in favor of a couple rounds of “Imagine.”

“Children of Men” opens 18 years after a mysterious plague of human infertility has swept the world (in a brilliant piece of exposition, we learn this through the device of news reports of the death of the youngest man on the planet – a Brazilian named Baby Diego – who is stabbed in a barfight after a life spent in paparazzi hell). With the human race scheduled to be kaput in less than 75 years, the world has become a bleak and dangerous place, with governments turning on their citizens and fascism run rampant. In Britain, where the film is set, this manifests itself as a black-booted brand of xenophobia, with the government rounding up anyone who isn’t native born and forcing them into squalid deportation camps.

In the midst of this gray and bleak landscape, Theo Fanon (the superb Clive Owen, who reportedly passed up a job as the new 007 to star here) goes about his life as a low-level government bureaucrat. After he is kidnapped on the street one morning and transported to a meeting with his ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore), we learn of his secret past as an anti-government radical. In the nearly 20 years since Theo has seen her, Julian has risen to the top of her organization, which seeks to bring down the British government.

Knowing Theo’s governmental connections, Julian offers him money to acquire transit papers to the coast for a teen-age girl. Theo accepts, but can only get papers that specify he will escort the woman to her destination. Shuttled to a safehouse in the English countryside, Theo meets Julian’s twitchy band of rebels, and also meets Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), the foreign-born girl he is to accompany. Though he thinks at first that she is just another radical trying to slip out under the wire, he soon learns her secret: Kee is almost nine months pregnant — the first full-term pregnancy in 20 years. She is being smuggled to the coast to meet a boat sent from the mysterious Human Project; a group of the world’s greatest minds, who have supposedly established a democracy on a hidden island.

With Kee soon to give birth, their trip to the coast ambushed, and Theo questioning whether the Human Project might be a kind of urban myth, they make a run for the coast, with a splinter-faction of Julian’s group and the police in hot pursuit.

Bleak and often troubling, “Children of Men” is one of a whole genre of distopian epics that have debuted in recent years, from the pitiful (“The Island”) to the visionary (“V for Vendetta”). “Children” sets itself apart from the pack, however, by virtue of its beauty and its humanity. Though Ashitey could have been better utilized here (she’s mostly just an object moved around the chessboard), Owen again proves himself to be one of the best actors working today, delivering the kind of deep and meaningful performance that made him shine in his breakout film, “Closer.” In addition to generally breathtaking direction — including some virtuoso-grade handheld work during the film’s tensest scenes — “Children of Men” offers some genuinely goosebump-inducing moments, as when Theo and Kee spend a night in an abandoned elementary school, overgrown and useless without children to fill it; and the moment when a full-scale military assault on a rebel stronghold is brought to a hushed standstill on both sides by the cries of Kee’s newborn baby.

Overall, while the chemistry is somewhat lacking between Owen and Ashitey, “Children of Men” is a stunningly original and moving piece of cinema, one that will likely be remembered at Oscar time in at least some respect. Though not approaching the tour-de-force of “Blade Runner,” its vision of a broken world suddenly given a scrap of reprieve is enough to give all of us a little hope.

David Koon

Dazzling and dreamy

Imagine a confetti-filled party with lights and sound and some of the best voices of your generation and you have Bill Condon’s latest cinematic experience “Dreamgirls.” Condon, the writer behind the 2003 Best Picture winner “Chicago” and an Oscar-winner himself for the screenplay of “Gods and Monsters,” adapts Tom Eyen’s Broadway book for the big screen, and introduces us to the real Jennifer Hudson.

I write the “real Jennifer Hudson” because, if you recall, she was one of the runners-up on that nonsense show “American Idol.” Chastised by Simon Cowell for lacking the requisite pipes to excel as a singer, Hudson retreated to the movies, where she took the role of Effie White in this film to new heights. She gives a show-stopping performance when she sings “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” midway through the film. It’s remarkable to the point that the entire theater audience clapped, as if you were watching Hudson in real life. An Oscar is in her future, many have predicted. Take that, Simon Cowell!

The story, loosely based on the real-life happenings of the Supremes, chronicles the quick rise to fame of three black female singers in the 1960s and their move from soul to pop. The girls, Deena Jones (Beyonce Knowles), Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose) and Effie are discovered by Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx) while singing at a talent contest. The girls are recruited into the big-time as backup singers for the legendary James “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy). After several performances they are set free to perform on their own. But as with every rise-to-fame story, trouble ensues.

Effie, after a turbulent affair with Taylor, is relegated to the back bench. No longer the group’s lead (benched for the prettier Deena), Effie succumbs to her own rage.

Her career spirals out of control, leaving her with nothing to show for her time in the spotlight, while Deena and the new Dreams continue as one of America’s hottest singing groups.

The tension of the big time doesn’t stop there. Early, in Eddie Murphy’s best performance to date, struggles with the demands of his ego, all the while fighting a heroin addiction.

While these tensions and beautiful images fill the screen, there’s something missing from “Dreamgirls.” The aim of the musical when it set foot on Broadway was to describe, through an aspect of pop culture, the ambition of America in the 1960s. The costumes and hairstyles all give the appearance of the time, but the message, even with new songs incorporated throughout, fails to harness that ambition.

One cannot help, despite its beauty, being disappointed in the film’s lack of flow. The narrative doesn’t accomplish its mission: to provide a structural bridge between songs. All together, “Dreamgirls” is still an accomplishment, if for no other reason than we see Murphy in a role that finally showcases his talent. And as for Jennifer Hudson, well, Effie’s words tell us all we need to know. She’s here to stay.

— Blake Rutherford

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